Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith. Unbelief is.
I’ve been told more than once, “In the scriptures, Jesus came down awfully hard against doubt. How then can you claim doubt is our friend?”
’Cause Jesus’s objection wasn’t actually to doubt. It was to unbelief.
Contrary to popular opinion—and way too many bible translations—doubt isn’t the opposite of belief. Unbelief is. Doubt’s not the same as unbelief. Doubt means we’re not sure we believe. Unbelief means we’re totally sure—and we don’t believe at all.
Doubt’s what happens when we sorta kinda do believe. But we’re not entirely sure. So we suspend judgment till we get more evidence. And often that’s precisely the right thing to do. Y’realize Christians constantly get scammed by false teachers, fake prophets, and con artists who tell ’em, “Stop doubting me and just believe!” In so doing they’re trying to keep us from practicing discernment, because if we did use our heads we’d realize what they were up to. They don’t want us to think. Just feel. Follow your emotions, not your head. Ignore the gray matter God gave you, and listen to your brain chemicals… and ignore the fact most of us can turn them on and off if we tried.
Unbelievers definitely try to describe themselves as doubters. I’ve met plenty of nontheists who claim that’s what they really are: Doubters. Skeptics. Agnostics who are intellectually weighing the evidence for Christianity… but we Christians haven’t yet convinced them, so they’re gonna stay in the nontheist camp for now. Makes ’em sound open-minded and wise. But it’s hypocritical bushwa. Their minds are totally made up; they stopped investigating God long ago. They don’t believe; they’ve chosen their side of the issue; they’re straddling nothing.
Real doubt might likewise mean we’ve totally picked a side. There are Christians who doubt, but they’re still gonna remain Christian. (After all, where else are they gonna go?
The goal of doubt is to get us to stop playing both sides, and finally pick one once and for all. The point of an open mind, as G.K. Chesterton once put it, is like that of an open mouth: At some point it’s gotta close on something solid. Belief—and conversely unbelief—means it has closed. Doubt means the question is still open. It’s not wrong to doubt. It is wrong to never deal with those doubts.
Our second guesses, or our unbelief.
Here’s one of the better-known stories about Jesus “rebuking doubt.” He was walking on water; Simon Peter wanted to do that too; the Holy Spirit let him give it a try. It’s a faith exercise. Worked as long as Peter trusted the Spirit… and stopped working the moment he stopped trusting, and started second-guessing.
Matthew 14.28-31 KWL
- 28 Replying to Jesus, Simon Peter said, “Master if it’s you, order me to come to you on the water.”
- 29 Jesus said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and came to Jesus, walking on the water.
- 30 Seeing the strong wind, Peter feared… and starting to drown, he called Jesus: “Master, save me!”
- 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out a hand, grabbed him, and told him, “Tiny-faith, why’d you backtrack?”
So how’d Peter go wrong? He backtracked: “Wait, what’d I get myself into? I’m walking on water in this weather. I must be nuts!” He lost his nerve. He let his fears overwhelm his circumstances, and fell over instead of stepping forward. Movies tend to depict Peter slowly sinking into the water, but I’ve no idea why. Matthew implies he fell right in. Strikes me as far more dramatic.
Jesus fished him out. I don’t know whether he stood Peter back on the water with him, or dragged him back to the boat; I just know Jesus rescued him, ’cause he does that. But note he called Peter oligópistos/“tiny-faith.” Jesus didn’t call him no-faith, but tiny-faith. Like I said, Peter had enough faith to get out of the boat, and that’s considerably more faith than your average Christian. (More than the other students too.)
But he didn’t rebuke Peter’s doubt, ’cause doubt isn’t even the issue. It’s second-guessing ourselves, even though the Spirit is clearly okay with what we’re doing, and has empowered us to act. It’s, “Wait; I don’t wanna do this anymore.” God’s kingdom needs commitment. If people are gonna act in faith, and the Holy Spirit’s gonna empower us to do miracles, we’d better darned well follow through.
The rest of the time, Jesus’s rebukes again weren’t against doubt, but unbelief.
Mark 9.19-24 KWL
- 19 Jesus replied to his students, “You untrustworthy youngsters.
- How long am I gonna be with you?—how long must I cover for you? Bring the boy to me.”
- They brought him to Jesus. The spirit saw Jesus and immediately pitched a fit.
- Falling on the ground, the boy rolled and foamed.
- 21 Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has this been going on?”
- The father said, “Since he was a little boy.
- 22 Many times it throws him into fire and into water, to destroy him.
- But if you’re able, help us! Have compassion on us!”
- 23 Jesus told him, “If you’re able. Those who believe in God, can do anything.”
- 24 The father of the little boy immediately shouted, “I believe!… Help me through my unbelief.”
When people get desperate, they’re not gonna cling to their unbelief. They’re willing to try anything. Including stuff they don’t really believe in at all. That was the deal with this guy and his demonized son: The evil spirit was mimicking epilepsy, which is why too many interpreters assume this was epilepsy. But the father realized it was an evil spirit, ’cause an epileptic seizure doesn’t intentionally throw its sufferer into fire or water. He realized there was some malevolence behind his boy’s condition. And since the pagan “physicians” (really, witch-doctors) were not only no help, but likely put these critters into his son, it was time to try the exorcist. First Jesus’s students—who, to Jesus’s great annoyance, weren’t up to the task, even though he’d trained them. Then Jesus himself, who could totally do it—but he wanted the father to act, not in desperation, but belief. Same as he expects of anyone who prays to him: Do it in faith!
But if we have our doubts? He can work with that. ’Cause when the father asked for Jesus to help him through his unbelief, Jesus did, and cured his kid.
Mark 9.25-29 KWL
- 25 Jesus, seeing the crowd gather rapidly, rebuked the unclean spirit,
- telling it, “I command you speechless, mute spirit: Get out of him, and never enter him again.”
- 26 Shouting and tearing him up, it came out. The boy looked dead, so many people said, “He died.”
- 27 Jesus gripped the boy’s hand, lifted him, and stood him up.
- 28 Entering the house, when they were by themselves, the students asked him this: “Why weren’t we able to throw it out?”
- 29 Jesus told them, “That species can’t be thrown out by anything but prayer.”
In other words you can’t throw it out. Only God can. So don’t presume you have the power to drive out every evil spirit you come across, just because you’re God’s kid. Always pray for help. You might need it. But I digress.
Doubting fellow Christians.
Jesus is infallible. Our fellow Christians aren’t. That’s why we’re actually instructed to doubt them. Test them, make sure what they tell us is consistent with good theology. It’s gotta jibe with the scriptures, with what other Christians teach, with common sense, and with our previous God-experiences. We don’t just blindly follow one another. (Not even me. I could be wrong too, of course.)
Problem is, we Christians are way too likely to unquestioningly accept the things our favorite preachers tell us. We’re more apt to listen to them than even the Holy Spirit! The Spirit may tell a man, “Help the needy,” but his pastor’ll tell him, “God helps those who help themselves.” The pastor is quoting Benjamin Franklin, not bible. But to the man, karma sounds way more fair to him than grace. So he follows his pastor, not the Spirit.
Even the best of us get suckered into following our prejudices instead of God. Likely you’ve heard this story before: God sent a prophet, whom the story calls “God’s Man,” to condemn King Jeroboam ben Nebat for idolatry. Enroute home, God’s Man encountered an older prophet who, for whatever reason, led him astray.
1 Kings 13.14-22 KWL
- 14 He rode after God’s Man and found him sitting beneath an oak.
- He said, “Are you God’s Man who came from Judah?” God’s Man said, “I am.”
- 15 The prophet said, “Go with me to the house, and eat bread.”
- 16 God’s Man told him, “I won’t go with you or come with you.
- I won’t eat bread, won’t drink water in this place.
- 17 The message to me, the L
ORD’s word, is ‘Don’t eat bread, don’t drink water there.
- Don’t return the way you came.’ ”
- 18 The prophet told God’s Man, “But I’m a prophet like you!
- An angel spoke the L
ORD’s word to me, saying, ‘Bring him back to your house.
- He will eat bread; he will drink water.’ ” But he lied.
- 19 God’s Man returned with the prophet, and ate bread and drank water at his house.
- 20 As they sat at table, the L
ORD’s word came to the prophet who’d brought God’s Man back.
- 21 He called out to God’s Man who came from Judah, saying: “The L
- ‘You rebelled against the L
ORD’s mouth and didn’t keep the command your L ORDGod commanded.
- 22 You returned, ate bread, and drank water
- in a place where I told you not to eat bread and drink water.
- So your corpse won’t come to your fathers’ tomb.’ ”
Very soon after, a lion killed God’s Man, and the older prophet buried him in his own tomb, thus fulfilling this prophecy.
Yeah, it sounds harsh. But we don’t know all the circumstances behind God’s odd instructions to God’s Man: Maybe they were meant to keep him from getting killed by lions! In any case, the main point is God’s Man didn’t doubt. He heard, “I’m a prophet too,” and his discernment went right out the window. He accepted the lie because he wanted to fill his stomach, and didn’t care God had instructed otherwise. Any loophole would do.
We pull the same stunt all the time. Plenty of Christians accept everything our preachers tell us, without a doubt, without a concern, without question, because our preachers are telling us just what we wanna hear. We aren’t engaging in the sort of healthy skepticism God wants of us when he told us to test prophets and teachers.
1 John 4.1 KWL
- Beloved, don’t trust every spirit, but put the spirits to the test to see if they’re from God,
- because many fake prophets have been coming out of the universe.
1 Thessalonians 5.19-22 KWL
- 19 Don’t quiet the Spirit: 20 Don’t dismiss prophecy, 21 and put everything to the test.
- Hold tight to what’s good. 22 Stay far away from what seems bad.
We’re expected to entertain a certain degree of healthy skepticism—healthy in the sense that the goal isn’t to reject everything, but test everything. Keep what’s good, shun what’s bad. We expect prophecies, moves of the Spirit, and solid teaching. But at the same time we’re meant to confirm prophecies, test spirits, double-check our teachers, and compare what we’ve heard to the scriptures, to Christians, and to reason. God isn’t just okay with this: He ordered this.
A fake prophet, false teacher, and iffy Christian will call it unbelief, and call our devotion into question. That’s their tactic, meant to frighten us into leaving them alone. Works too well, too often. Way too many Christians never admit our doubts, never publicly ask questions, keep our mouths shut, and meekly allow ourselves to be led astray. Every legalistic church, every child-molesting pastor, every fool who teaches something stupid and ridiculous and embarrasses Christianity with it, has benefited by the fact Christians refuse to doubt. We refuse to engage our brains, and apply any critical thinking. It makes us look like idiots. But whenever we refuse to ask questions, we are idiots.
Every Christian should doubt. Make sure it’s of God, and once you find out it’s him, follow him to the ends of the earth. But first we gotta reasonably confirm it’s him. So don’t slack on that.